American Dreamer: The Life and Times of Henry A. Wallace

american-dreamerI obtained this book through the interlibrary loan system with the single purpose of checking out an original reference for the book I’m writing about the Rocky Flats Plant during the Cold War. I was surprised that the book has over 600 pages, checked the page with the reference I wanted, and then began skimming it. Much to my surprise the book drew me in. For those unfamiliar with him, Henry Agard Wallace was a fascinating character. He grew up in a farm family that published a newspaper that focused on farming and political issues associated with farming. He was raised to be a completely moral Christian, and seldom allowed even the most vicious political attacks he would eventually suffer later in his public life to stir him to do more than offer a reasoned defense.

Most people probably know something about Wallace because John Nance Garner, Franklin Roosevelt’s Vice President for his first two terms, strongly opposed FDR running for a third term. (Garner had been chosen as the Vice President in a deal that allowed FDR to receive his first nomination by the Democratic Party. FDR and Garner were polar opposites, and my impression is that they detested each other and went out of their way to avoid the need to have any contact.) A large slate of candidates wanted to have the VP slot, but FDR chose Wallace.

FDR had chosen Wallace to be his Secretary of Agriculture during his first two terms despite the fact Wallace was a Republican. Party difference was immaterial, because Wallace was a strong Progressive. He also was a brilliant man who studied and comprehended the role of genetics in crop yields. He and his wife formed a hybrid corn seed business that eventually made them wealthy. The chickens he bred eventually provided a substantial portion of eggs to the nation and the world.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are about the key role Wallace played in his position of Secretary of Agriculture in the New Deal during years when famers were being crushed by the Great Depression. Fans of small government will be astonished and disturbed at the growth and reach of his department. His first personnel action was to appoint Milton Eisenhower, Ike’s brother, head of information services with instructions “…to transform the department immediately into a vast action agency to restore parity of income to American farmers.” The primary focus of the many government actions taken under Wallace’s leadership was to improve farm income by the “…promotion of planned scarcity.” Wheat was the easiest crop for the new strategy, because many wheat growing areas were experiencing a crushing drought. “It would not be necessary to plow under growing wheat; nature had done it—unequally, cruelly, to be sure, but decisively…” Millers and bakers didn’t like the new processing tax that paid expenses for the new program until they understood they could blame the price increases on the government.

Cotton was a challenge because there was a large surplus and there was too much land under cotton cultivation. There were 22,000 volunteers who worked to sign up a million cotton farmers who were paid to plow under a fourth of the crop. Dairy farmers were in desperate situations and didn’t care what was done as long as it was done quickly. Corn and pork were in oversupply, and the best the Wallace’s team could come up with was to reduce corn by ten million acres and hogs by seven million head. Hog farmers came up with the suggestion to slaughter pigs weighing less than one hundred pounds instead of allowing them to reach the usual market weight of 200 pounds. Nothing Wallace did caused the criticism brought on by slaughtering millions of undersize pigs. It was denounced as “pig infanticide” and “pig birth control.” (My parents were “FDR Democrats,” and were baffled “why FDR wanted to kill the baby pigs.”)

The entire process of reducing production of food while people in the country were going hungry was baffling. At least something was eventually done to make use of the slaughtered immature pigs. A “…special agency, the Federal Surplus Relief Corporation, was established; it distributed some one hundred million pounds of pork and port by-products, such as lard and soap, to the needy.” Wallace was certainly not oblivious to the quandary and mentioned the “…method of resolving the paradox of want in the midst of plenty…”

Some of the most surprising parts of the Wallace story were about his “mystic” side that caused him to “search for the inner light” with a medicine man, an astrologer, and a mystic poet. His search led him to a strange man he began to address as “guru.” The guru was Nicholas Konstaninovich Roerich. He was “…an expatriate Russian of uncertain politics, a philosopher who dabbled in Oriental mysticism, a painter of international renown, (and) a visionary activist for the cause of peace.” Roerich wore Tibetan robe and had a long, forked mustache. He also had a talent for separating money from wealthy Americans. My short version of the “guru” story is that Wallace became a dupe for a practiced charlatan. Wallace wrote letters such as one that began, “Dear Guru, I have been thinking of you holding the casket—the sacred most precious casket. And I have thought of the New Country going forth to meet the seven stars under the sign of the three stars. And I have thought of the admonition ‘Await the Stone’.” Wallace eventually had a falling out with Roerich, but the strange letters he wrote would come back to haunt him in his public political life. There is no doubt that the relationship between Wallace and Roerich was “…something inappropriate or improper or simply weird…”

FDR apparently developed a curiosity about Roerich, but didn’t become as fascinated as Wallace. He decided Wallace would be his running mate to replace Garner for the 1940 election. Wallace was not a popular choice among the delegates, but became the candidate for one reason; he was FDR’s choice.

Somewhere during the early 1940s FDR developed a concern about Wallace. He didn’t make it clear (FDR seldom made anything clear) whether it was Wallace’s mysticism or his radical Progressive ideas that made him decide Wallace would be a political liability. FDR, in his typical fashion, continued to assure Wallace that he supported him as his running mate while the movement was afoot to replace him with Truman. The book mentions that Wallace had surrounded himself in the Agriculture Department with people such as Alger Hiss who worked on the cotton programs (and later would be in the State Department spying for the Soviet Union).

FDR dumped Wallace for Truman, Truman became President, and Wallace was offered the Secretary of Commerce. Wallace’s conciliatory and outspoken attitudes about the Soviet Union eventually forced Truman to ask for his resignation. Wallace would run as the Progressive candidate against Truman in 1948 with open support from the Communists and Socialists. He became a political pariah who was challenged to decide “…whether he loved the United States or the Soviet Union.” The FBI tracked and recorded his every move for years.

Wallace influenced me to believe in his patriotism when he refused to support the Progressive Party position against U.S. involvement in Korea. Wallace commented, “I want to make it clear that when Russia, the United States, and the United Nations appeal to force, I am on the side of the United States and the United Nations. Wallace was continually attacked by those who were advocating his role in the “Red Scare” after he left public life. My opinion after reading this book is that he might have been on the wrong side of many policies, but I cannot criticize someone who would leave the political party they established as a matter of loyalty to the United States.

At the age of seventy-five Henry Wallace taught himself Italian and was learning Portuguese. He was the picture of health. He ran a half mile and did pushups every day. He played tennis every weekend. He was travelling in Guatemala when he impulsively tasted an interesting nut. It was bitter and he spit it out and was told the nuts were poison. Soon after he was climbing a pyramid and his left foot began to drag. Not long after he was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) (commonly called Lou Gehrig’s disease). He tried all possible treatments and diets, but the disease progressed as it did with all ALS patients. He died November 18, 1965 when the muscles needed to bring air to the lungs failed. Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman eulogized, “No single individual has contributed more to the abundance we enjoy today than Henry Wallace.”

I recommend the book to history fans. It discusses all the important historical events during Wallace’s life and explains the role a talented and strangely complicated man. As a closing note, he wrote a paper in the 1950s about his continual defense of the Soviet Union in the years following World War II. The title was “Why I was Wrong.”

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